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High-speed travel has become a very slow business

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The UK rail network may be advancing, but it lacks the pace and glory of the good old days, says David Jenkins

Earlier this month, Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s remarkable Thames Tunnel was open to the public for the weekend. For a brief moment it was possible to walk ‘the shining avenue of light’ to Wapping, just as half of London’s population had done in 1843.

Visiting it is a reminder of the great elan with which transport infrastructure was once conceived in Britain. Transport infrastructure is in the news again – but this time for all the wrong reasons. Not because we’re celebrating the completion of the first Crossrail station or the opening of a new high-speed rail line, but because we’re still arguing about whether we need, or can afford them.

Two hundred years ago there was no transport infrastructure in Britain – or anywhere else for that matter – other than the canal network. The journey from London to York took four days by stagecoach over roads that were often barely passable. Ten years later the railway age began. Between 1821 and 1849 an astonishing 10,700 miles of inter-city rail track was laid. At peak construction, 500 miles of track was added every year and enabling Acts of Parliament were passed at the rate of almost one a week. The question then was not ‘if’ or ‘why’ but ‘how’.

Without the railways there would have been no industrial expansion in Britain, no communications systems, no progress. The railway network then was seen to carry the economic lifeblood. It was heroic, it brooked no obstacle – it surged ahead. Brunel completed his Great Western Railway in just six years, designing along the way a dazzling array of structures: a bridge at Maidenhead, viaducts at Hanwell and Chippenham, and the two-mile-long Box Tunnel.

The journey from Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads took just four hours – rail then was high-speed in every sense. Contrast that with today. Although Crossrail was first mooted in 1989 you won’t be able to travel on the line until 2017, assuming that funding is not cut. Nor will you be able to whizz from London to the north of England at 250mph any time before 2026. In the 21st century, high-speed travel has become a very slow business.

David Jenkins was technical editor and then buildings editor on the AJ from 1987 to 1989

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